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May 1, 2006

Niagara County vineyards help wine trail grow

In an industry that’s thousands of years old, it’s pretty easy to classify Randy Biehl and Michael VonHeckler as newcomers.

But it’s just as easy to call them pioneers in Niagara County’s burgeoning boutique wine movement.

Both men know their grapes, from years of hands-on training or study, and each has their own tastes and marketing ideas. VonHeckler, managing partner for Lockport’s Warm Lake Estate, started with $2 million from dozens of investors, while Biehl maintains a smaller operation at Eveningside Vineyards in Cambria, with his wife and two kids helping out when they can.

The two took time recently to talk about their product, the benefits and drawbacks to growing and offering wines in Niagara County, and the future of the Niagara Wine Trail, of which both are members.

QUESTION: What do you grow, and why?

VonHeckler: We grow exclusively pinot noir, and we grow it because the Niagara Escarpment is perfect for pinot noir.

Biehl: We focus on the fine wines, the cabernets, chardonnays, Riesling ... everybody along the wine trail tends to find their own niche, and ours happens to be the fine ones.

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QUESTION: Where do your guests come from, and what are they looking for?

VonHeckler: The winery is busy seven days a week, for tastings and tours ... In our case, it’s pretty simple — our customers are looking for great pinot noir. ... Of course, just because you make it, that doesn’t mean everybody’s going to come and buy it. There’s a marketing plan that’s a big part of success.

Biehl: I’d say about 50 percent of our guests are out-of-towners ... you’ll get somebody who says, “My wife likes to gamble, I like wine,” and they’ll bring a buddy along sometimes ... Some people are very educated and know exactly what they want, others are just looking for something new ... The best thing that’s happening, though, is the younger wine drinkers. Never have their been so many people in their 20s drinking wine, and it’s going to be great for the vineyards.

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